Tuesday 20 March 2012

Driven:- 2004 Jaguar XJ8 4.2 SE

Jaguar have turned a corner since being taken over by TATA. In actual fact, it’s come as some surprise to me just how positively the takeover appears to have worked out, with the XF and XFR still turning heads even several years after launch.

It’s the new XJ, though, that marked the most radical departure for the old Browns Lane marque. Such an advancement did it represent that it eclipses the previous generation so totally that I had almost completely forgotten about it. Until this week I had a chance to play with one.

The original XJ6 of 1968 was an absolute world-beater, nobody could realistically argue about that. With its clean, elegant yet cunningly compact lines it was clearly the right car to ensure Jaguars long-term viability, a fact borne out by the cars extraordinarily long lifespan; the basic architecture lasted until 1990 when the jet-like Daimler Double-Six was finally retired.

Next to come was the XJ40, similar in silhouette but with the strange absence of a lot of the elegance and delicacy of touch that the original enjoyed. It was necessary to declare some design progress,  but unfortunately that forced modernity spread as far as the dashboard, whos’ simple, clean analogue dials had vanished in favour of a painfully of-its-time digital-analogue mix. Thankfully this was rectified within the first couple of years, as was the build quality and reliability which had started out indifferently and never quite reached the level it should have. In 1994 the XJ gave way to the X300, which was pretty much identical under the skin, even sharing the same dashboard. I drove one of these a little while back, and absolutely loved the experience: a straight-six waftmobile that swept you along in unhurried refinement. Wonderful. Not especially good, per se, but wonderful nonetheless.

Then, in 2003, it was all change. A new car from the ground up was thought necessary as the competition had marched inexorably forward. Jaguar was already taking a battering from the Germans, but of rather more concern was that the Japanese had started to line up and take pot shots too. What Coventry needed was a car of state-of-the-art technology yet imbued with all the characteristics that people loved from Jags of the past.

The X350 was the first Jaguar to be hewn from aluminium. This gave it increased lightness and rigidity, massively expensive repair costs and a reason for the aluminium-for-ages Audi A8 to stop looking so smug and pleased with itself.

Unlike the X-Type and S-Type, there was no platform sharing going on here. The new XJ was entirely Jaguars own work and was new from the ground up. But it wasn’t as if you’d have guessed by looking at it….

The one I have at my command this week was a 4.2 V8, in SE flavour. There was a sport model available with a rather more dynamic looking front grille treatment, and this isn’t it. In fact, this particular machine seems to have been specified with a view to making it as invisible as physically possible.

Viewed in its own right, it’s a very attractive motor-car. It could only be a Jag, with those four fluted headlamps, long, low, narrow stance and castellated front and rear wings. The rear three-quarter view is probably the most successful aspect, the roofline is well handled; rounded in profile and reminiscent of the ‘70s XJ6/12 Coupe models. The rear lights, too,  nod towards the Pininfarina-accented Series Three. As the development of a theme, it holds together very well.

But now for the caveat. The styling department obviously had a shopping list of Jaguar elements they wanted to include and have made a decent fist of doing so, but it’s all very watered down. If the balance of the car wasn’t so well proportioned and classically Jaguar, it would begin to look just like any other big saloon car, from Lexus LS to Lincoln Town Car. It has a more modern stance than its forebears, with a deck area considerably higher than the bonnet line giving it a mild wedge-shape, but this was probably as much with an aim towards federal crash-protection legislation and increased golf-club carrying capability (a blue-blood bugbear throughout the XJs history) as anything else.

I repeat:- it looks great, and I like it. But it did absolutely nothing to move Jaguar forwards. It’s a bit like Cliff Richards releasing a new Christmas Single; you can be assured of melodious, granny-friendly ditty but it would be nice to see him go mental with some experimental dubstep once in a while. With the latest XJ, that’s pretty much what happened; and it turns out that old Cliff does dubstep rather well.

While I’m being predictable, I’ll go on to say exactly the same about the inside. Step through the wide-opening doors into an interior that’s noticeably roomier than its forbears, and survey the oceans of wood, wool and leather. All present and correct. All quite nicely put together, too; the leather is nicely stitched, the plastics are well up to task and it’s all very nice.

Yet, somehow, I can’t help but feel slightly let down by the whole experience. The dashboard, by and large, looks like a bigger version of that of the S-Type; itself a scaled up X-type unit. Which is fine, but crushingly predictable. And I feel myself thinking that the wood and leather feels, well, a bit corny.

The whole thing feels like a British car that was designed by a group of Americans. It’s not a Jaguar, it’s Jaguar themed. It’s like visiting “England” at the EPCOT centre at DisneyWorld; a concentrated pastiche of the real England, rich with red telephone boxes and cobblestone streets. Of course, that’s not really what 99% of England is really like. Much of the UK is shrouded in concrete and smog.  Driving this car, sitting behind a dashboard made from wood that’s so polished it may as well have been plastic, seemingly desperate to shake you by the lapels and shout “I AM REAL WOOD!” It felt like I was driving a Lincoln with the optional “English car” accessory pack. And, while we’re on the record, I hate the Jaguar touch screen navigation system, with its sensation-free, fingerprint gathering touchscreen interface and the feeling that the Nav System in your £70k car is no different to that in your neighbours £25k X-Type.

So then I tested the handling. It was a relatively brief investigation, firstly involving my patent “roundabout test”, in which I fling the car recklessly into a familiar roundabout and note how it copes. With no other road traffic to contend with, I galloped in and then yanked the wheel to clockwise, expecting a chaos of tyre noise as tortured rubber screamed in under steering pain, but instead I experienced a sudden change of direction as the car just dug in and tracked obediently round. Barely  any body roll, very little argument between the two ends of the car, just total control.

I’d say that, driven well across country, an XJ of this generation would be able to snap at the heels of many a performance car, much to the chagrin of its owner. I can quite imagine the frustration of Mr Impreza WRX, trying to escape from the sober-suited saloon car that’s shadowing its every move, plus he’s being shaken around and deafened, while the chap in the Jaguar is serene and cosseted.

It doesn’t even really need to be able to handle like this, it’s as if Jaguars engineers just imbued it with miraculous capabilities “for a laugh”, a bit like Canon releasing a new photocopier with all the usual reprographic capabilities, but also the ability to hover if you press a special button. It’s a party trick that not everybody gets to experience. At this point I will just address the fact that the equivalent cars of BMW, Mercedes and Audi from the same era were all very capable as well, but in terms of sheer drivability the Germans can’t hold a candle to it. 

And that brings us back to the way it looks. This, right here, is the ultimate example of hiding your light under a bushel. A car that, to all intents and purposes was at the very cutting edge, yet which was forced to dress down to Clarke Kent levels of anonymity. Very stiff upper lip, very Gentlemanly. Very stupid. It took the company what felt like ages before they realised their error and did something to make the XJ look a bit more special. But they did. And it worked.

The X358 was its name, and it had just the right amount of garnish to wake things up a bit. The basic shape was unchanged, but enough tinkering was done to lend the car a sense of menace that it just didn’t have at launch. Chief among the addenda was a set of gill-like air intake blades aft of the front wings; a-la Range Rover, that could have looked appallingly gauche and glitzy. They didn’t. They looked terrific. The stuffy old Tory MP Jaguar was turned into a Ronnie Biggs style gangland hero.

 My Girlfriend lost her Grandfather three years ago and the funeral procession was made up of a trio of X358s, two limo versions and a hearse. Any burial voyeurs watching could have been fooled into thinking they were watching the mourning of a Cray twin, not of a mild-mannered ex-council gardener. The X350, despite its blandness, always had presence. Now it had authority, too.

We all know that the XJ that came along in 2009 was an altogether different proposition. By making it look like no Jag that had gone before it the X351 was able to sever all its ties with the past and appeal as a uniquely capable car in its own right. It no longer needed to visually reference its heraldry; the theory was that, by now, the public ought to know what Jaguars were all about and be buying into that, not just decided to go with the Big Cat based on its past glories. We also know that it’s a superb motor car. The fear is that the X351 will overshadow its X358 forebear so much that that car will be forgotten altogether.

Side by side, an original ‘68 XJ6 and an ‘07 model represent the genesis and zenith of the lineage before reincarnation. They look closely related, and do the same things very well. But all the while the XJ has been learning new skills. It still has the same raffish nature, the same hushed solemnity and the same restrained elegance, and very similar proportions. It has developed an athletic side to its personality, too, that was always there moronically but never became dominant.

The X358 was, literally, as far as traditional Jaguar-ness could be pushed without a fundamental rethink.

The X351 was that rethink.